Human-centered leadership is an emerging and influential leadership style that puts people first within an organization. It emphasizes deeply understanding employees' needs, actively supporting their professional growth and fulfilment, and co-creating an engaging, psychologically safe, and inclusive work environment.

Human-centric leaders act with authenticity, communicate their vision in a compelling and collaborative way, encourage teamwork and new ideas, and foster a culture of trust and innovation. This article will explore the multitude of benefits that human-centered leadership offers organizations, provide strategies and best practices for implementing it, and outline ways to sustain this people-first culture long-term.

Examples of human-centered leaders

Several renowned leaders exemplify the principles of human-centered leadership:

  • Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart, has prioritized the development and well-being of his employees by increasing wages, offering better training, creating clearer career paths, and demonstrating a commitment to the growth and satisfaction of Walmart's workforce.
  • Indra Nooyi, Former CEO of PepsiCo, is celebrated for her empathetic leadership style and focus on employees' long-term success. She implemented initiatives aimed at work-life balance and the career development of PepsiCo's employees, showing how caring for the personal and professional growth of individuals can drive corporate success.
  • Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, has been globally recognized for her empathetic and decisive leadership. Her focus on people-first policies, open communication, and empathy during crises has not only bolstered her country's resilience but also increased trust and cooperation among the populace.

These examples capture the essence of human-centered leadership, underscoring the transformative impact that leaders can have had on their organizations and constituents by prioritizing human development and wellbeing.

The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership. Harvey S. Firestone

Benefits of human-centered leadership

Adopting a human-centered leadership approach offers many advantages that positively impact employees and the organization, such as:

Increased employee engagement and satisfaction

Employees feel more motivated, committed, and satisfied when leaders prioritize their well-being, growth, and success. Human-centric leaders actively provide professional development opportunities, resources, encouragement and support to help people thrive in their roles and reach their potential. Studies show that highly engaged teams demonstrate 16% higher productivity, 21% higher profitability, and 41% lower absenteeism, when compared to disengaged teams

Improved team performance and innovation

Human-centered leaders intentionally build high levels of trust and psychological safety within teams. This human-centric culture fosters open communication and a willingness to collaborate and freely share knowledge and experiment with creative solutions together. Teams led this way are more innovative, adaptable to change, and resilient when facing challenges because people feel safe taking risks and bringing unconventional ideas to the table. Research indicates inclusive teams show 19% higher revenue due to innovation compared to non-diverse teams.

Enhanced organizational culture and reputation

By authentically living their values daily and inspiring others, human-centric leaders shape an uplifting organizational culture that attracts and retains top talent. Embracing social responsibility, sustainability, diversity and ethical practices also strengthens a business’s reputation among customers, partners, and other stakeholders. Organizations find it easier to collaborate with and gain support from their local communities when they genuinely care for their people and the planet.

Stronger talent attraction and retention

Surveys show that professionals, especially Millennials and Gen Z, increasingly prioritize empathetic leadership, diversity, flexibility, work-life balance, and purpose when choosing employers. Companies with established human-centered leadership have a substantial competitive advantage in recruitment and retention. By supporting growth, fulfillment, and well-being, human-centered companies build loyalty among staff and reduce costly turnover.

Direct revenue increase through human-centered leadership

Adopting a human-centered leadership approach directly contributes to an organization's revenue growth. Leaders who prioritize employees’ well-being, development, and engagement create a more productive, innovative, and committed workforce. This, in turn, enhances customer satisfaction and loyalty, leading to increased sales and profitability. For instance, companies that excel in employee engagement outperform their competitors by as much as 202% in terms of financial performance and overall business success - highlighting the long-term impact of investing in your people.

In summary, embracing human-centered leadership provides multifaceted benefits spanning enhanced engagement, innovation, ethical reputation, organizational performance, and talent acquisition and retention. Overall, you raise your bottom-line by elevating your people first.

Implementing human-centered leadership

Implementing an authentic human-centered leadership strategy involves several key actions:

Cultivating emotional intelligence

Self-awareness and emotional intelligence (EQ) are foundational capabilities that human-centric leaders must cultivate within themselves before guiding others. This involves developing heightened awareness of one's own emotions, triggers, biases, strengths and weaknesses. It also entails effectively managing emotions and regulating responses, as opposed to reacting impulsively. With inner self-management strengthened, leaders can then tune into others' verbal and nonverbal cues, empathize with differing perspectives, and respond with sensitivity and understanding. Research highlights that emotional intelligence fosters trust, enhances influence, and enables leaders to calmly motivate teams through disruption.

Ways to develop EQ:

  • Self-help and personal development books and podcasts.
  • Speaking with a licensed therapist or mentor.
  • Taking quizzes and tests to measure your EQ.
  • Doing mindfulness exercises and meditation.

Promoting open communication

Human-centered leaders actively promote a culture of open communication by seeking input and engaging in discussions. They listen actively and without interruption to understand. Receptive, compassionate leaders encourage questions and input even when challenging or critical. This fosters two-way dialogue, psychological safety, and honesty. Employees feel valued knowing their voice is consistently heard and makes an impact. This leads to increased collaboration and innovation.

Ways to develop open communication:

  • Do active listening training exercises
  • Make time for regular one-on-one check-ins and team meetings
  • Put in place anonymous feedback channels
  • Practice skip level meetings (where a manager's manager meets directly with team members without the direct manager present.)
  • Be available during office hours with an open-door policy

Empowering through autonomy

Providing staff more control over how and when they complete work satisfies intrinsic motivations for purpose, mastery and autonomy. Human-centric leaders convey deep trust in people's abilities to creatively solve problems and make appropriate decisions independently within defined parameters. Increased autonomy fuels higher engagement, initiative and sense of ownership. It empowers individuals and teams to confidently put forth new solutions and continuously improve processes.

Ways to empower and foster autonomy:

  • Delegate responsibilities
  • Give employees autonomy over assignments
  • Conduct surveys and brainstorming for new projects and initiatives
  • Allow flexibility in scheduling work and time off

Investing in professional development

Demonstrating commitment to each person’s ongoing learning and career growth makes employees feel valued as individuals. Supporting career advancement paths and lateral growth retains engaged talent long-term and conveys investment in staff. Rotation programs provide exposure to other business areas.

How to do it: Invest in professional Development opportunities like training programs, workshops, conferences, mentoring and tuition assistance programs that allow people to continuously gain new skills.

Leading by example

Like it or not, you are always leading by example. Earning respect and credibility requires “walking the talk” consistently. Human-centered leaders role model honesty, integrity, respect, care, vulnerability, inclusivity and ethical behavior daily in interactions large and small. By admitting imperfections, seeking input before big decisions, granting flexibility, and honoring work-life balance personally, authentic leaders set the tone from the top down. When aligned words and actions build trust over time, employees follow their lead. All this requires strong self-awareness and self-management skills.

How to develop self-management skills:

  • Learn to manage stress and recognize your feelings.
  • Speak with a licensed therapist or mentor.
  • Take auto-evaluation quizzes and tests.
  • Doing mindfulness exercises and meditation.

Leveraging technology

Digital learning platforms, artificial intelligence, virtual reality simulations and other immersive technologies provide innovative tools to scale empathetic leadership training across global organizations.

Ways technology can help you:

  • Mobile apps deliver micro-learning modules on emotional intelligence competencies.
  • VR simulations allow leaders to practice assessing situations and responding with compassion to struggles faced by diverse team members.
  • Upskilling with leadership development courses online.

Sustaining a human-centered culture

Whilst adopting human-centered strategies sets positive change in motion, sustaining this supportive culture long-term requires ongoing diligence across several areas:

Regular assessment and adaptation

Continuously evaluate leadership initiatives through employee engagement surveys, feedback channels like focus groups or town halls, and performance metrics. Are satisfaction and retention trending upward? Do people feel heard, cared for and empowered? The insights gathered should inform regular adaptations to programs and approaches to meet evolving needs. Maintaining relevance as a human-centric organization demands tuning into the pulse of employees and responding accordingly.

Fostering a community of leaders

Encourage collaborative, caring leadership behaviors at all levels, not just among formal managers. Provide coaching to help leaders across the organization role model human-centered leadership effectively. Also empower informal leaders by granting them autonomy to spearhead community-building, innovation, volunteering or other cultural initiatives based on their passions. Distributed leadership strengthens belonging, purpose and agility across all business units.

Celebrating successes

Recognize and widely celebrate team and individual milestones tied to company values, not just financial metrics. For instance, rewarding a team that created an innovative solution that helped people or volunteering initiative that made a difference reinforces the behaviors you aim to motivate. Publicize these stories internally.

Learning from setbacks

Treat setbacks as valuable opportunities for reflection, discussion and future improvement rather than placing blame. Lead by example in analyzing missteps calmly and openly. Foster a growth mindset where people feel safe voicing concerns, collaborating on solutions, and viewing obstacles as a chance to improve.

Championing well-being

Prioritize employee's physical, emotional, social and financial health through comprehensive well-being programs. Offer training on stress management, work-life balance, resilience, and healthy habits. Promote use of mental health services. Ensure office environments have daylight, greenery, ergonomics, and opportunities to move, unwind or connect.

Diversity, equity and inclusion

Provide ongoing education on mitigating bias, champion diverse perspectives and ensure equal access to growth opportunities. For example, implement mentorship programs specifically empowering professionals from underrepresented groups. Seek diverse talent proactively. Support employee resource groups and diversity-focused initiatives to power innovation.

With commitment to upholding these people-first values, human-centered leadership can continue thriving and positively impacting employees for the long haul.

Key takeaways

Human-centered leadership is an emerging approach that emphasizes understanding and supporting employees professionally and personally. It’s also more than a moral imperative; it is a strategic advantage that directly influences an organization's bottom line, innovation capacity, and ability to attract and retain top talent.

Leaders like Doug McMillon, Indra Nooyi, and Jacinda Ardern demonstrate that placing humans at the core of leadership decisions not only fosters a positive work environment but also drives substantial business or economic benefits. By embracing this leadership style, organizations can ensure sustainable growth and success by keeping people always at the heart.

Implementing human-centered leadership requires cultivating emotional intelligence, open communication, staff empowerment, professional development and leading by example with integrity and care. The multitude of benefits explored include increased engagement, innovation, ethical reputation and stronger talent retention.

Sustaining this supportive culture long-term also demands regular checking employee satisfaction, adapting approaches as needed, distributed leadership, celebrating values-driven wins, promoting well-being, and championing diversity and inclusion.

With diligent commitment to human-centered leadership strategies, organizations tap into the multidimensional potential of their people. Employees feel valued, inspired and empowered to bring their best selves to work. This drives higher performance, creativity, ethics, resilience, and fulfillment.

In an increasingly complex and rapidly changing business landscape, one thing remains constant - leading with humanity and care for people sets successful organizations apart. It is leadership that touches hearts, sparks passion, and earns loyalty through living one's values - not just discussing them.

About EHL Group

EHL Group is the global reference in education, innovation and consulting for the hospitality and service sector.
With expertise dating back to 1893, EHL Group now offers a wide range of leading educational programs from apprenticeships to master's degrees, as well as professional and executive education, on three campuses in Switzerland and Singapore. EHL Group also offers consulting and certification services to companies and learning centers around the world. True to its values and committed to building a sustainable world, EHL Group's purpose is to provide education, services and working environments that are people-centered and open to the world.

EHL Hospitality Business School
Communications Department
+41 21 785 1354

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